St Luke chapter 7, verse 36'Jesus went into the Pharisees house and took his place at the table.'
And I'm sure you can't wait to do the same - to get to your house and take your place at the table for lunch! But if you can hold on for a moment, I'll tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a man called Cosmo Gordon Lang. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the crisis of the Abdication of King Edward VIII and at the outbreak of the Second World War. He began his ministry as a curate in Leeds, and some fifty years later he told how
Now doesn't that resonate tellingly with St Luke's story of Simon the Pharisee and that other 'woman who was a sinner'; and isn't Lang's kindly judgement on the woman a vibrant echo of Jesus' judgement on the woman in the Gospel story? She comes into Simon the Pharisee's house when he is giving a party at which Jesus is a guest. She bathes Jesus' feet with her tears, kisses them, and anoints them with ointment. Simon feels that Jesus' acceptance of such a display is not consistent with a prophet who comes from God: any prophet worth his salt would repudiate the woman's advances and expose her sinfulness. Jesus answers Simon's unspoken criticism with the parable of two debtors, which vividly makes the point that one who is forgiven much (the woman) is likely to respond more warmly than one who is forgiven little (Simon).
Where does that leave Simon? He is, after all, a Pharisee, virtuous and respectable. There's not much in his life that needs to be forgiven. But is that really so? What about his uncharitableness, his lack of openness, his hard judgemental attitude towards this woman, his cold contempt for people of her kind? Are they not sins which need forgiveness every bit as much as this woman's openly deplorable behaviour?
And what about the woman? When Simon condemns her as a sinner, no one contradicts him, no one speaks up for her: she doesn't even speak in her own defence; she knows she is morally reprehensible. But Jesus treats her with unquestioning acceptance and gentle understanding. He asks for no confession, seeks no expression of regret - and yet Jesus insists she is forgiven. Don't you find that striking? All our life we've been taught that without confession and repentance there can be no forgiveness. Yet here is a woman whom Jesus welcomes and accepts without penitence being either asked for or volunteered.
What can it mean? Perhaps the woman has heard of Jesus as 'the friend of tax-collectors and sinners', and is irresistibly attracted to him by his lack of condemnation, his recognition that she and people like her are also God's children and also the recipients of his love. And so she responds to him with a warmth and a love which he unhesitatingly accepts.
The question this raises for us is, 'Who are we like: Simon, or Jesus?' How do we treat people, not just people like the woman in the story, who have lost their way and are sunk in some sort of shame and disgrace; but people who are outsiders by their culture or creed, people who are vulnerable and exploited by society, people who are, well, just different from us? Do we treat them with criticism and censure or kindness and care? With Jesus, it was all kindness, all acceptance: he had a welcome for everybody. His followers are meant to show that same forbearance and forgiveness, that same courtesy and kindness, that same welcome and acceptance.
We began this sermon with words from an Archbishop of Canterbury. We end it with words from another Archbishop of Canterbury, the present one, Justin Welby, who preached the sermon in Westminster Abbey at the Service for the 60th Anniversary of the Coronation. In the course of the sermon he said
We see all that in the life of Jesus, says the Archbishop; and he might well have added, we should see it, too, all that unstinting generosity, all that overwhelming love, in the life of all Jesus' followers - and that means in your life, and in mine.
And now you have heard that message and absorbed that lesson you can go to your house and take your place at table and have your lunch!
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